And the art of being remembered
By Bill Thompson
My friend J.B. had wanted me to come by to see him, so I did. It wasn’t easy getting to his house. I had to leave the paved road and follow the sandy Onslow County road for about a mile through some cut-over woodland and across a wooden bridge that his father had made back in the 1920s.
He had told me, “Papa built that bridge when he bought his first car. Didn’t need a bridge for a mule and wagon to cross that swampy spot. Built it out of solid oak boards he cut right here on the farm.” Those same boards were still there, give or take a board or two, for me to cross that day.
When I crossed the bridge, I could see J.B. out in the front yard of his little house. It was the house he had been born in almost 90 years ago. When he was 15 years old, he had left it and his family there near Hubert to follow the horse-show circuit as a groom for a wealthy man from Jacksonville. During that time, he had done well for himself financially, saving his money and making good investments. He had come back home upon retirement. I asked him once why, with all his money, he hadn’t retired to Florida or some other place other than Hubert. “I saw all I wanted to see of Florida and most everywhere else. I hadn’t seen enough of home,” he answered.
As I got out of the car and started walking toward the house, I could see that J.B. was painting a rocking chair. He had placed it on two cement blocks right out in the yard and was applying the paint with a small paintbrush. The color of the paint was pink.
I thought it was curious that this man would want a pink rocking chair for that particular house. The sides of the house had turned gray from weather and age. The porch that went across the front of the house was about three feet off the ground, and you could see under it where a couple of dogs were resting. Only one of the windows, the one for the bedroom, had any curtains.
J.B. looked a lot like the house. What hair he had was gray, and he wore a pair of gray corduroy slacks, a faded blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and an old pair of lace-up riding boots.
We greeted each other, shook hands, and he invited me to come and sit on the porch with him. I wanted to ask him right then why he was painting that rocking chair pink but was afraid it might embarrass him, and I figured if he wanted me to know he’d tell me later.
He poured himself a glass of water from a jar filled with ice water and asked me if I wanted some. I told him I did. J.B. had told me long ago that he believed in drinking a lot of water. No soft drinks and definitely no alcohol. He said that was one reason he was still healthy at his age.
We talked for a good while about the business he had called to talk about. Then he reminisced for a while, as always when we were together, about the old days when he was traveling as a groom with the wealthy man’s horses.
I was getting ready to leave and as we walked toward the car, he asked, “Aren’t you going to ask me about the pink rocking chair?”
“Well, I am curious,” I said. “But I figured you’d tell me if you wanted me to know.”
“I knew you wouldn’t ask. You’re too polite sometimes. You are one of the few people who ever comes to see me, so I’ll tell you. Hardly anybody ever comes up here to talk to me; like I didn’t really come back home, like I’m a stranger or something. I figure that when I die folks will come up here and see that pink rocking chair. They will wonder why an old man like me would have a piece of furniture that color. They will speculate and propose all kinds of reasons, none of which will be true. I painted it so they will have something to talk about and remember me when I’m gone even if they wouldn’t talk to me when I was living.”
J.B. died a few months after my visit. I went to his funeral and, sure enough, the main topic of conversation at the graveside service was the pink rocking chair. I never told anybody his reason for painting the chair.
Bill Thompson is a regular Salt contributor. His newest novel, Chasing Jubal, a coming of age story in the 1950s Blue Ridge, is available where books are sold.